How Labor Scholars Missed the Trump Revolt

Historians in the News
tags: labor, Trump



Jefferson Cowie is a professor of history at Vanderbilt University. His most recent book is "The Great Exception: The New Deal and the Limits of American Politics" (Princeton University Press, 2016).

... I am a labor historian — or at least one in recovery. When my colleagues and I saw the financial crisis, our predominant response was something like an exhausted, cynical shrug: "Of course — what did you expect in an age of rampant deregulation and absurd economic inequality?" Yet when the next systemic paroxysm hit our nation — the wave of white, blue-collar rage that helped elect Donald Trump — my field seemed as ill-equipped to explain the "actual evolution of the real-world" situation as the science of economics had been to explain the crash in 2008. One could have polled the entire American Political Science Association and the Organization of American Historians in 2016 and found very few who would have predicted a Trump victory — unless Michael Moore (who nearly alone, in no uncertain terms, predicted a "Rust Belt Brexit," the last stand of the common white guy) happens to be an accidental member of one of those professional organizations.

Richard Hofstadter, the old grandmaster of American political history, laid clear the burdens of being a historian: "The urgency of our national problems seems to demand, more than ever, that the historian have something to say that will help us." The need for salient historical explanation seems more important now than ever, yet a lot of us are coming up empty. Most of what we seemed to know about how class works suddenly seems dated, or simply wrong. As with the economists of the past decade, we may have been blinded by the bedrock assumptions of our own field.

Most labor historians, one way or another, and whether or not they concede it, remain children of the "new labor history." The field emerged in the 1960s and ’70s from several sources: the political vision of the New Left, civil rights, and women’s movements; the rejection of the narrow trade-union economism of the "old" labor history; and, perhaps most important, the 1963 publication of E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class. Thompson famously rejected an analysis that addressed class as a "thing," arguing instead for a new analysis that approaches class as a "happening." Smashing icons across the intellectual spectrum, his book began a new age of rich and adventurous writing about the history of working people. He sent historians on a mission to figure out how class worked — without indulging the condescending, instrumental, or teleological traps of previous intellectual models.

In place of institutions and economics, the new breed of scholars put culture, consciousness, community, agency, and resistance at the center of their analyses. In rushed two generations of engaged scholarship, freeing workers from prisons of party, union, and state. No longer intellectual pawns, the working class could have its own voice and reveal its own rich complexity. Liberated history, so the assumption went, would lead to liberated workers. And liberation became the project of the new labor history.

But this paradigm never quite escaped its origins in the political romanticism of the New Left that gave birth to it. At its best, it opened up wide vistas of understanding of the entirety of American history; at its worst, it looked like a cultural whirlpool of radicals writing radical history for a radical audience. ...




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